Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Atheist Professor's Brain

I had an exchange on a message board years ago, in which a theist posted one of those pithy "inspirational" stories about a Christian student getting the best of his bullying atheist professor. I wrote a response to it and then didn't think of it again for a while.

However, in more recent times several people have written to us at The Atheist Experience with almost the same story, and asked what we could say about it. Because it's easier to search this blog than that board, I am reprinting the exchange here.

First, the story.

PROFESSOR: "LET ME EXPLAIN THE problem science has with Jesus Christ." The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand. "You're a Christian, aren't you?"
STUDENT: "Yes, sir."
PROFESSOR: "So you believe in God?"
STUDENT: "Absolutely."
PROFESSOR: "Is God good?"
PROFESSOR: "Are you good or evil?"
STUDENT: The Bible says I'm evil."
PROFESSOR: The professor grins knowingly. "Ahh! THE BIBLE!" He considers for a moment. "Here's one for you. Let's say there's a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help them? Would you try?"
STUDENT: "Yes sir, I would."
PROFESSOR: "So you're good...!"
STUDENT: "I wouldn't say that."
PROFESSOR: "Why not say that? Would you help a sick and maimed person if you fact most of us would if we could...God doesn't"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: The elderly man is sympathetic. "No you can't, can you?" He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax. In philosophy, you have to go easy on the new ones. "Let's start again, young fella. Is God good?"
STUDENT: "Er... Yes."
PROFESSOR: "Is Satan good?"
PROFESSOR: "Where does Satan come from?"
STUDENT: The student falters. "From... God..."
PROFESSOR: "That's right. God made Satan, didn't he?" The elderly man runs his bony fingers through his thinning hair and turns to the smirking, student audience. "I think were going to have a lot of fun this semester, ladies and gentlemen." He turns back to the Christian. "Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?"
STUDENT: "Yes, sir."
PROFESSOR: "Evil's everywhere, isn't it? Did God make everything?"
PROFESSOR: "Who created evil?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Is there sickness in this world? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All the terrible things - do they exist in this world?"
STUDENT: The student squirms on his feet. "Yes."
PROFESSOR: "Who created them?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: The professor suddenly shouts at his student. "WHO CREATED THEM? TELL ME, PLEASE!" The professor closes in for the kill and climbs into the Christian's face. In a small voice: "God created all evil, didn't He, son?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
STUDENT: The student tries to hold steady, experienced gaze and fails.
PROFESSOR: Suddenly the lecture breaks away to pace the front of the classroom like an aging panther. The class is mesmerized. "Tell me," he continues, "how is it that this God is good if He created all evil throughout all time?" The professor swishes his arms around to encompass the wickedness of the world. "All the hatred, the brutality, all the pain, all the torture, all the death and ugliness and all the suffering created by this good God is all over the world isn't it, young man?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Don't you see it all over the place? Huh?" Pause "Don't you?" The professor leans into the student's face again and whispers, "Is God good?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?"
STUDENT: "Yes, professor. I do"
PROFESSOR: (The old man shakes his head sadly) "Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you seen your Jesus?"
STUDENT: "No, sir. I've never seen Him"
PROFESSOR: "Then tell us if you've ever heard your Jesus?"
STUDENT: "No, sir. I have not."
PROFESSR: "Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus... in fact, do you have any sensory perception of him whatsoever?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Answer me, please."
STUDENT: "No, sir, I'm afraid I haven't."
PROFESSOR: "You're AFRAID... you haven't?" (The professor glides his bony hands through his balding head)
STUDENT: "No, sir."
PROFESSOR: "Yet you still believe in him?"
STUDENT: "...yes..."
PROFESSOR: "That takes FAITH! (The professor smiles sagely at the underling) According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son? Where is your God now?"[The student doesn't answer]
PROFESSOR: "Sit down, please." (The Christian sits...Defeated…. Another Christian raises his hand)
OTHER STUDENT: "Professor, may I address the class?"
PROFESSOR: (The professor turns and smiles) "Ah, another Christian in the vanguard! Come, come, young man. Speak some proper wisdom to the gathering."
OTHER STUDENT: The Christian looks around the room. "Some interesting points you are making, sir. Now I've got a question for you. Is there such a thing as heat?"
PROFESSOR: "Yes, son, there's cold too."
OTHER STUDENT: "No, sir, there isn't” The professor's grin freezes. The room suddenly goes very still. The second Christian continues. "You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat but we don't have anything called 'cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can't go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold, otherwise we would be able to go colder than 458 - You see, sir, and cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it." Silence. A pin drops somewhere in the classroom. "Is there such a thing as darkness, professor?"
PROFESSOR: "That's a dumb question, son. What is night if it isn't darkness? What are you getting at...?"
OTHER STUDENT: "So you say there is such a thing as darkness?"
OTHER STUDENT: "You're wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it's called darkness, isn't it? That's the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, Darkness isn't. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker and give me a jar of it. Can you...give me a jar of darker darkness, professor?"
PROFESSOR: Despite himself, the professor smiles at the young effrontery before him. This will indeed be a good semester. "Would you mind telling us what your pint is, young man?"
OTHER STUDENT: "Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with and so your conclusion must be in error...."
PROFESSOR: The professor goes toxic. "Flawed...? How dare you...!"
OTHER STUDENT: "Sir, may I explain what I mean?" The class is all ears.
PROFESSOR: "Explain... oh, explain..." The professor makes an admirable effort to regain control. Suddenly he is affability itself. He waves his hand to silence the class, for the student to continue.
OTHER STUDENT: "You are working on the premise of duality," the Christian explains. "That for example there is life and then there's death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science cannot even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism but has never seen, much less fully understood them. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, merely the absence of it." The young man holds up a newspaper he takes from the desk of a neighbor who has been reading it. "Here is one of the most disgusting tabloids this country hosts, professor. Is there such a thing as immorality?"
PROFESSOR: "Of course there is, now look..."
OTHER STUDENT: "Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such a thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't evil the absence of good?"
PROFESSOR: The professor's face has turned an alarming color. He is so angry he is temporarily speechless.
OTHER STUDENT: The Christian continues. "If there is evil in the world, professor, and we all agree there is, then God, if He exists, must be accomplishing a work through the agency of evil. What is that work, God is accomplishing? The Bible tells us it is to see if each one of us will, of our own free will, choose good or evil."
PROFESSOR: The professor bridles. "As a philosophical scientist, I don't vie this matter as having to do with any choice; as a realist, I absolutely do not recognize the concept f God or any other theological factor as being part of the world equation because God is not observable."
OTHER STUDENT: "I would have thought that the absence of God's moral code in this world is probably one of the most observable phenomena going," the Christian replies. "Newspapers make billions of dollars reporting it every week! "Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?"
PROFESSOR: "If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do."
OTHER STUDENT: "Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir? (The professor makes a sucking sound with his teeth and gives his student a silent, stony stare) Professor, Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a priest?"
PROFESSOR: "I'll overlook your impudence in the light of our philosophical discussion. Now, have you quite finished?" the professor hisses. I believe in what is - that's science!"
OTHER STUDENT: "Ahh! SCIENCE! (The student's face splits into a grin) Sir, you rightly state that science is the study of observed phenomena. Science too is a premise which is flawed..."
PROFESSOR: "SCIENCE IS FLAWED?" (The professor splutters…. The class is in uproar… The Christian remains standing until the commotion has subsided)
OTHER STUDENT: "To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, may I give you an example of what I mean?" (The professor wisely keeps silent. . . The Christian looks around the room)
OTHER STUDENT: "Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor's brain?" (The class breaks out in laughter. . .The Christian points towards his elderly, crumbling tutor) "Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain... felt the professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain?" No one appears to have done so. (The Christian shakes his head sadly) "It appears no one here has had any sensory perception of the professor's brain whatsoever. Well, according to the rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science, I DECLARE that the professor has no brain." (The class is in chaos…The Christian sits... Because that is what a chair is for)

My analysis:

It's a charming little piece of fiction. Searching the net for keywords in the story, I discovered that this little piece is reposted on over 600 pages. It has all the classic elements of an urban legend...

  • In many cases the poster swears this is a true story.
  • None of the pages ever says what particular school this took place at, or what the name of the professor is.
  • Many of the minor details change subtly with each retelling. Especially, there are several different endings to the story. In your version, the student sits down amidst pandemonium. In some versions the professor rushes out of the room in embarrassment. One version concludes "... The student got an A in the class." Another has the professor go crazy and rush the student, only to die of a stroke.
  • Every character in the story is a caricature, starkly contrasting "Good, persecuted student" and "Evil professor".

I love the caricatures. The professor jumps in his class's face without provocation. He is described with such evocative phrases as "The elderly man runs his bony fingers through his thinning hair and turns to the smirking, student audience." (His bony fingers and baldness are described twice, just to make sure we get the point.) He shouts at his student for no reason at all, then sticks his face in front of the student. He's always smiling, smirking, and generally acting like a comic book villain. But when reacting to the other student, he sucks, hisses, freezes, gets angry, "goes toxic", etc. One wonders how in the world he ever got his Ph.D when he obviously has never received any criticism in his life and doesn't know how to deal with it.

The heroic Christian, of course, gets described with neutral words like "explains", "replies", "continues", "looks around". Unlike the prof, his physical features are never described, except that he grins once.

But the most salient feature of the story is that neither the professor nor any of his students have an adequate grasp of the most basic concepts of science. What kind of idiot is this professor, whose idea of science is that if you can't smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, or see it, then it doesn't exist? If that's the case, then what happened to electrons, cells, Newton's laws of motion, living dinosaurs, black holes, photons, magnetism, infrared light, and general relativity? For that matter, what about abstract concepts like "harmonic chords" or "Thursday"?

Science isn't about what we can perceive with our five senses. If that were true we wouldn't need scientists, because most of us already HAVE those five senses. It's about organizing facts about the known world into descriptions that can explain the way things happen. These descriptions make predictions which can be tested, repeated, and falsified if they're wrong.

Of course, science can't actually prove that the professor has a brain. Just because every human or animal body that has ever been dissected and analyzed has always had a brain; just because countless experiments have demonstrated that the brain controls an organism's ability to move and speak and reason; just because an animal with a damaged brain becomes an inanimate mass of carbon... these things are hardly conclusive proof. What science can do is make predictions with confidence and high accuracy; it can prove things beyond reasonable doubt but it can't prove anything with 100% certainty. The fact that it is able to change and correct mistakes is part of what makes it a powerful tool.

If the professor had any kind of clue what he was on about, he could have explained all this. Of course, the problem isn't with the professor, who is after all only a fictional character. The problem is that the author of the story has never heard of or simply doesn't understand the scientific method. It's easy to make up little stories where the opposition is always an evil overlord who doesn't know how to argue and your side always wins. It's also easy to win at chess when you control both sides of the board.

Oh, and one final point...

"Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such a thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't evil the absence of good?"

No, evil isn't the absence of good. An empty universe would be devoid of both good AND evil. A universe with no life or intelligence would not be good or evil. "Good" and "evil", assuming they exist, are not passive activities or "absence" of something else. A professor of philosophy should have seen through that immediately. But he doesn't because he, like the story's author, is completely out of his depth.